Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth
With Carole Shelly, Norbert Leo Butz and Joel Grey
Gershwin Theatre / 222 West 51st Street / (212) 307-4100

Reviewed by David Spencer

Curiously, after my having seen "Wicked", a number of people asked me, pretty much all in the same approximate wording, if it marked "the return of Stephen Schwartz"–as if I, or anybody, was seer enough to know. But hazarding a guess, the best I could come up with was, "Well, it’s certainly the return of Stephen Schwartz as a viable Broadway force." Because indeed, the show would seem, at this early stage, to be a crowd-pleasing hit. But as to the real question implied: Is Schwartz back at full creative power? Well, that’s another issue altogether.

Let’s start with the basics first. "Wicked" is based on a novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire. I have not read the novel myself, but reports of those who have attest that the adaptation is more fluid than faithful, as most (but not all) transformations from any media into musical are wont to be–one way or the other. But let’s assume that at least the spirit (the most crucial element, for it’s what makes the piece attractive to begin with) is preserved. What has reputedly been lost is the deeper political allegory behind the tale–which is a revisionist look at L. Frank Baum’s "The Wizard of Oz". Not such a bad thing if the narrative that remains is a strong one; and it is.

In fact, it is the show’s by-far strongest asset.

The tale approaches the tale backstory first, showing us the beginnings of the famous witches, good one Glinda (Kristen Chenoweth) and bad one Elphaba, a.k.a. "of the west" (Idina Menzel)…who in this tale are nowhere near such cut and dried archetypes. Indeed, at first Glinda is callow, status obsessed and into being "popular" (that word, by the way, is the title of what is arguably the show’s best song); and Elphaba is a sincere, nerdy student, wanting only to do good. The twists and turns of fate and decision that lead to their eventual public personæ comprise the bulk of the story–which in the last third overlaps with the Oz narrative we all know from the first book and the film–but, again, from the reverse perspective, revealing hidden threads we would never have otherwise suspected. ("Looking at things in a different way," is the motivic–and obvious–phrase used throughout.)

An arguable weakness of the narrative lies in how much it assumes (especially in Act Two) the audience’s familiarity with the original "Wizard" tale; but judging from the audience reaction, it’s a safer assumption than not. Winnie Holzman’s book covers a fairly complex story with fleet, entertaining efficiency.

Now as to that Stephen Schwartz score…

There are two or three standout numbers. The rest leave a very modest impression, and most of those even a mild one for seeming incomplete: Mr. Schwartz is toiling in the land of developing motifs and fragments, in a Sondheimesque way (though in his own distinct musical vocabulary)–but he doesn’t have Mr. Sondheim’s command of the technique; subsequently the fragments feel less like building blocks toward something larger and more comprehensive than merely fragments. Also, there’s Mr. Schwartz’ soft-rock flavored imprimatur. Not all songs utilize that musical vocabulary, but the ones that do feel more of This Earth than Of Oz, with the result that the sense of exoticism is diluted. Not absent, but less than it should be. Mr. Schwartz’ lyric wordplay is likewise distracting rather than dazzling. He frequently favors trick rhymes, but the tricks are like as not to be strained and self-conscious (I’m sorry not to have taken notes to give examples; but you’ll hear what I mean on the cast album). The "Wicked" tricks seem at least more in evidence than in previous Schwartz scores, and possibly that’s an homage to the giddy wordplay of E.Y. Harburg’s classic "Oz" songs…but in those, the labor is never evident, because the sense of giddy whimsy is higher–and Harburg is just flat-out better at fun rhymes. (In part because he’s fearless about making words up, rather than trying to bend them toward consonance. "I’d unravel any riddle/For any individdle…" "But I could show my prowess,/Be a lion, not a mowess…" and etc.) Also, Mr. Harburg had a better sense of propriety: he keeps the trickery away from sincerity (as in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"); whereas Mr. Schwartz does not always exercise the same restraint. No mistake, the score to "Wicked" is accomplished, craft-savvy, attractive always–but those general attributes only occasionally invoke the necessary warmth and magic. For the most part, the score seems to evanesce as it crosses the proscenium border. The coming cast album may well allow us to appreciate the score more fully and richly–but the first impression is one of mere, if very respectable, okayness.

So the answer to the opening question is, yes, indeed, Schwartz has returned victorious–the man is, unequivocally, back. He just isn’t as completely back as we might have wished. (And what’s the deal with this credit: "Music arrangements by Alex Lacamoire & Stephen Oremus"? Schwartz has always been composer enough to do his own meticulous and literate accompaniments. Are we to understand that he was lead-sheeting or short-cutting? Or is this some misleading contractual credit?) Still, William David Broh’s orchestrations are, as always, top notch.

The design team has delivered great Oz authenticity (sets: Eugene Lee, costumes: Susan Hilferty, lighting: Kenneth Posner) with some darker, more baroque (even Clive Barker-like) touches, as befits the witches’ side of things; and the cast is generally a winning one. Chenoweth and Menzel are powerhouses of course, but lending very classy support, Carole Shelley, Norbert Leo Butz and–a veteran of my own "Weird Romance"–William Youmans are at the top of their game. (Joel Grey as the Wizard is a touch disappointing, though. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s phoning it in…but he’s not pushing his envelope either. He’s using his familiar bag of tricks.)

And of course, these elements could not so effectively blend without savvy direction, and Joe Mantello has provided that with his first produced musical. It won’t be his last.

Indeed, "Wicked" will be on most people’s "must-see" lists for the season.

But I have a feeling that upon leaving the theatre, most of those people will be humming the book…

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